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What Does China Want?

We can win this great power competition without war, but decoupling is inevitable.
U.S. President Trump Visits China

What does China Want? A lot is riding on that question. Senator Josh Hawley took to the floor of the Senate last week to  assert that, “…imperialist China seeks to remake the world in its own image, and to bend the global economy to its own will.” White House adviser and trade hawk, Peter Navarro, went a step further in a recent  interview with ABC, alleging that the coronavirus was a tool deliberately leveraged to accomplish their imperial ambitions: “The Chinese, behind the shield of the World Health Organization for two months, hid the virus from the world, and then sent hundreds of thousands of Chinese on aircraft to Milan, New York and around the world to seed that.”

Both of these men take their cues from the President, who, according to bestselling author J.D. Vance,  told  TAC that Trump “…changed the conversation on China in a way that almost no…political candidate or president could have.” And, thanks to the Coronavirus, it seems to be working. According to polling from the Pew Research Center, across the ideological spectrum, 90% of Americans now believe that China is a threat. Even Joe Biden’s campaign, sensing the shifting winds of public opinion, is taking a tougher line on China in hopes that Trump’s new nickname for him, “Beijing Biden,” won’t stick. Better to be remembered as “Sleepy Joe,” than to go down as “The Great Appeaser.”

It seems that China threat inflation is good politics, but is it true? Does China really want to dominate not only the Pacific, but the world?

One book published quietly in 2016 prior to the election sheds light on these pressing questions. Howard French’s masterful, Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shape China’s Push for Global Power, digs deep into China’s history to understand their self-conception as a people and civilization. Former White House Chief Strategist, Steve Bannon, told me that he considers it to be one of his top three China books, but French is no Trumpian nationalist. In fact, quite the opposite.

French is on the faculty of Columbia University and formerly served as The New York Times’ bureau chief in Japan and China. He is a respected member of the foreign policy establishment. Judging by the new afterward he penned for the book, which laments Trump’s victory as a “blow to America’s power, prestige, and influence abroad,” it’s clear that French wanted to put some distance between himself and those in the White House who might use his arguments as ammunition for driving a harder line on China.

The book covers a lot of ground: from the ancient Zou dynasty dating back to 1046 BCE to the Century of Humiliation to Mao’s Cultural Revolution and the rise of Xi Jinping. French provides an excellent historical primer for anyone looking to better understand China’s relationship with the West, and it’s neighbors like Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam. For the sake of brevity, I will focus on the three areas most relevant for our dealings with China today: The principle of tian xia, the historical record of China’s encounters with the West, and Chinese ambitions in the era of Xi Jinping.

The Principle of Tian Xia

The book takes its name from a stanza in The Book Of Odes, a compilation of Chinese poetry dating back to the Zhou dynasty. In it, the poet writes: “Everywhere under vast Heaven (tian xia) / There is no land that is not the king’s. / To the borders of those lands / There are none who are not the king’s servants.”

What does this mean? According to French, “…for the emperors of the Central Kingdom, this place we call China, the world could be roughly divided into two broad and simple categories, civilization and non-civilization, meaning the peoples who accepted the supremacy of it’s ruler, the Son of Heaven, and the principle of his celestial virtue, and those who didn’t—those who were beyond the pale.”

In the footnotes, French points the reader to Yale political scientist, James C. Scott, who explains that since the 12th century, the Chinese have further divided the uncivilized into two distinct classifications, “‘raw’ and ‘cooked’ with the latter meaning amenable to assimilation.”

This mindset informed their approach to foreign affairs. The Central Kingdom would not tolerate any peers in Asia or anywhere else in the world. How could they? China is the sun, and every other country a moon or satellite in their orbit. In the Pacific, French writes, “Chinese values, Chinese culture, the Chinese language, Chinese philosophy and Chinese religion were all regarded for long stretches of history as essential references, even universal standards.”

China would only tolerate vassal states as part of their tribute system. The price of admission was nothing less than “ritual submission before the Chinese emperor.” And there could only ever be one emperor under the heavens. French provides a telling historical example from the 2nd century BCE of how this policy played out in practice.

There once was a ruler in Vietnam who had the audacity to “proclaim himself emperor in his own land.” The Chinese could not tolerate such insubordination. The Han Emperor responded: “When two emperors appear simultaneously, one must be destroyed…struggling and not yielding is not the way of person endowed with humanity. Shortly after, the Vietnamese emperor capitulated, writing, “The Han emperor is the sagacious Son of Heaven. Henceforth, I shall suppress my own edicts.”

By French’s reading, this event underscores two key components rooted in tian xia that have guided Chinese foreign policy ever since:

  • “…it was a direct statement that in its home region, the Han emperor would not countenance any would-be peers.”
  • “Beyond that, China was signaling its determination to intervene anywhere in the world where it felt its central role or its vital interests might be challenged.”

China’s Encounters with the West

One of the more colorful stories in French’s book describes an attempt by the British crown to open-up trade relations with China. King George III sent Lord Macartney to meet with Emperor Qianlong to discuss his proposal. Macartney arrived on a “sixty-four-gun man-of-war,” loading with gifts including “a room-size planetarium, giant lenses, a hot air balloon…and modern weaponry.” The British considered themselves to be a global empire at the peak of their powers. The Chinese were not impressed. To make matters worse, the British diplomat refused to “perform the ‘full’ kowtow while presenting himself before the Chinese throne…according to the standard ritualized submission demanded by Chinese protocol under tian xia.”

Such an affront to the Son of Heaven could not be tolerated. The Emperor sent a letter back with Lord Macartney regarding his decision about free trade. His message to the King was clear:

“…your Ambassador has now put forward new requests, which completely fail to recognize the Throne’s principle to…exercise a pacifying control over barbarian tribes, the world over…Nevertheless, I do not forget the lonely remoteness of your island, cut off from the world by intervening wastes of sea, nor do I overlook your excusable ignorance of the usages of our Celestial Empire.”

After carrying on with insults for a few more paragraphs, he concluded with a sober warning: “Should your vessels touch the shore, your merchants will assuredly never be permitted to land or to reside…but will be subject to instant expulsion…Tremblingly obey and show no negligence! A special mandate!”

This historic encounter is instructive as it reveals how the Middle Kingdom conducted diplomacy with the West. The principles of tian xia applied not only to tributary states in their own sphere of influence, but also to great powers on the other side of the world. Access to Chinese markets came at a price and that price was submission. Those who were willing to bend a knee could gain access to one of the largest markets in the world. For everyone else, the financial benefit to the Middle Kingdom was not worth the humiliation of recognizing another country as a peer, especially when that country was a “lonely” island “cut off from the world…by wastes of sea.”

Chinese Ambitions in the Era of Xi Jinping

Now, an imperial past does not necessarily mean an imperial future. Great Britain doesn’t conduct itself today the way its monarchs did centuries ago, and there’s nothing intrinsic in people’s DNA that says they have to manage political affairs the way their ancestors did. However, it would be foolish to write off history and tradition all together. There’s something that rings true today about de Tocqueville’s description of Americans even though his visit took place nearly two hundred years ago. More importantly, we should pay attention when a political leader invokes history and tradition as precedent for actions today. When judged by that standard, Xi Jinping’s regime fits squarely within the tradition of tian xia outlined by French.

For starters, the regime defends its claims in the South China Sea by invoking time immemorial or “ancient times,” in the words of Xi Jinping, as their justification for “ownership” of island chains like the Paracels & Spratlys and building artificial islands/ military bases at places like Fiery Cross or Johnson Reef, the latter having been “seized from the Vietnamese in the 1988 turkey shoot.” A similar logic applies when considering China’s contested claims to the Senkaku Islands in its longtime dispute with Japan.

But what concern is it to the United States if a great power like China wants to establish primacy in the Western Pacific, essentially a Chinese version of our Monroe Doctrine? As Pat Buchan put it succinctly in TAC, “There is no U.S. vital interest at risk in these islands to justify an eternal war guarantee or treaty commitment to fight Beijing over rocks and reefs in the South China Sea.”

French would agree, “A country of China’s size cannot be contained, and any effort to do so would be counterproductive…the most salient U.S. goal…is thickening the web among China’s wary neighbors, who have a shared interest in keeping China from using force to upend the existing order.”

Fair enough. But, as French later notes, it would be a mistake to look at Chinese expansionism in the narrow context of “the hard elements of the power balance.” China’s “One Belt, One Road,” initiative uses technology, infrastructure, and trade, to establish a new Silk Road that “would encompass ‘4.4 billion people, 64 countries, and a combined economic output of $21 trillion, or 29% of global GDP.’” Kowtowing to Chinese interests will be the cost of doing business for the countries along this new trading route spanning from China thru Central Asia to Eastern Europe. And many have already  accused Beijing of using “debt trap diplomacy” to hold these nations hostage for decades to come.

Combined with attempts to dominate the global telecom market by  expanding Huawei contracts for 5G into Western Europe and strategic efforts to undermine American culture through its influence over  mainstream media,  Big Business, and  American universities, there’s no question that China’s ambitions extend beyond the Pacific to encompass the globe.

The window of opportunity for China is closing due to their coming demographic crisis. The one-child policy has put them in an untenable situation where they will have more than “329 million people over 65” by 2050, “which is equal to the entire current populations of France, Germany, Japan and the United Kingdom combined,” according to political scientist, Mark Haas, cited in French’s book. This means they will likely act swiftly in the next decade to expand their global influence before redirecting national resources towards caring for the elderly at home.

In light of this information, French concludes his book by saying that we should “look upon China’s predicament with sympathy. The only peaceful way forward, however, is to work even harder to draw China into the international system…this is most painfully obvious with regard to the international financial system…or in more generous and ready acceptance of Chinese initiatives like One Belt, One Road.”

Did he read his own book?

He goes on in the final paragraph: “A China that is treated as an equal with much to contribute to human betterment…is a China that will mellow as it advances in the decades ahead, and then most likely plateau. That is a China that will grow more secure in its greatness, a China we can live with.”

No. That’s not a future we can live with because it’s not the future China wants. French himself made the case that the principle of tian xia, which is the central argument of his book, forbids China from treating any other country as a peer. So why should we treat them as one? And by “human betterment,” is he referring to the forced organ harvesting of Uighur Muslims that is  allegedly conducted in concentration camps in Xinjiang? Or covering  up for the Coronavirus in a manner that enabled it’s exponential spread? Or the new law  proposed in the NPC last week that will inevitably be used to silence free speech and political dissent in Hong Kong, effectively upending the “one country, two systems” policy in place for the past 23 years?

We know what China wants. In responding to the threat, however, it would be severely misguided to pursue a strategy of regime change or kinetic war over primacy in the South China Sea or within the larger First Island Chain. Senator Hawley is correct in framing the challenge in terms of economic competition: “The economy has become the principal arena for the great power contest of this century. Economic policy is now security policy.”

A strategic decoupling is in order. Pat Buchanan said it first in his book, The Great Betrayal, “The United States has the whip hand in this relationship, and it’s time we use it…We should cancel China’s most-favored-nation status and negotiate a reciprocal trade agreement that recognizes our different societies and conflicting interests.”

If it’s an essential supply—pharmaceuticals, medical supplies, or military equipment—we should follow the advice of George Washington and make it in the U.S.A. And perhaps more importantly, the most pressing national security issue of our time is developing the technology of the future so that the world doesn’t become dependent on China for 5G networks and more, which can be used as a back door for Chinese surveillance and military operations.

To accomplish this economic and technological pivot away from Asia, we will assuredly need to pull out of the Middle East and reduce our commitments in Europe and Africa. With $25 trillion in debt, a nation must make trade-offs, and ending our forever wars is the best place to start. We can win this great power competition without war, but decoupling is inevitable. Whether or not it’s strategic depends on the sagacity and foresight of our President and his allies like Sen. Hawley in the Senate. The 21st century literally hangs in the balance.